Friday, December 13, 2013

Review of Naturalism: A Critical Analysis edited by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (Part 3)

This is part three of a series of articles on the book Naturalism: A Critical Analysis.  You can find part one and part two in my blog archive.

Chapter 3: The Incompatibility of Naturalism and Scientific Realism
by Robert C. Koons

Robert Koons continues the book's assault on naturalism by arguing against the compatibility of naturalism and scientific realism.  Scientific realism is simply the position that the methods and findings of science uncover objective information about really existing entities in the world.  The reason a telescope displays a bright patch of light when pointed in a certain direction in space, for example, is because there's a ball of burning energy out there causing the telescope to display what it does.  Many naturalists, as far as I can tell, are strongly motivated toward naturalism precisely because they think scientific realism is the correct view of reality, and they think naturalism bears the strongest commitment to such realism out of all positions on offer.  Thus, Koons' thesis is extremely provocative as it targets one of naturalism's primary virtues.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review of Naturalism: A Critical Analysis edited by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (Part 2)

This is part two in a series of essays exploring the 2000 book Naturalism: A Critical Analsysis by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland.  You can find part 1 here.  This essay will explore the second chapter of the book.

Chapter 2: Knowledge and Naturalism
by Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard's project is to argue that certain varieties of naturalism cannot accommodate knowledge or knowing in the world.  Given the limited physical resources of a naturalist world, too many ingredients of knowledge are missing from such a world to account for our coming to possess knowledge.  Willard states his thesis thus in his fourth paragraph:
"I will try to explain why narrower Naturalism or unqualified Physicalism cannot find a place for knowledge, and specifically for three of its essential components: truth, logical relations and noetic unity" (p.24).
Notice that he qualifies naturalism with "narrower."  He does this because naturalism has not historically been a unified position.  Willard distinguishes "narrower" naturalism from "generous" naturalism in the essay.  The former only permits physical entities into existence whereas the latter is not necessarily limited to only physical entities.  Narrower naturalism, therefore, is stronger (or bolder) than generous naturalism.  While Willard argues in the above quotation that narrower naturalism cannot find a place for knowledge, Willard argues elsewhere in the essay that generous naturalism also fails to accommodate knowledge because the position is imprecisely defined and winds up being vacuous.  We will look at this last claim first.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Review of Naturalism: A Critical Analysis edited by William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland (Part 1)

William Lane Craig and J.P. Moreland edited a volume in 2000 entitled Naturalism: A Critical Analysis.  The work is a collection of ten essays by different philosophers who each, in turn, criticizes different dimensions of the naturalist worldview.  I aim to do a short series of reviews of select essays from the book because, first of all, the book is extremely interesting.  Second, naturalism has maintained its popularity in the decade since this book's publication, but the criticisms leveled in this work remain, as best as I can tell, unresolved; I wish to discuss the arguments against naturalism that I find most compelling.  I will begin with chapter one.

Chapter 1: Farewell to Philosophical Naturalism
by Paul K. Moser and David Yandell

In their essay, Moser and Yandell argue that although the methods and resources of the empirical sciences reliably track the truth in certain domains, there is insufficient justification for extending those methods and resources to such a degree that the empirical sciences have a monopoly over all domains of inquiry.  Put another way, since some knowledge comes to us by way of physical sense experience of an externally existing material world, it does not follow that all knowledge comes to us by way of physical sense experience and that all existing entities are material.  Moser and Yandell write:
"A basic question is whether there is a legitimate form of philosophical procedure, often called 'first philosophy,' that has ontological authority but employs methods 'prior to' or at least not based on sense experience or the empirical sciences. In particular, can a philosopher operating without reliance on sensation or the empirical sciences legitimately engage in inquiry that posits real objects or at least yields genuine truths? Naturalists say no; antinaturalists, yes" (p.3-4).

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism: A Response to Stephen Law

In my recent review of Alvin Plantinga's book Where the Conflict Really Lies, I sketched his Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN) and briefly considered a reply to the argument by Stephen Law.  Stephen Law published his reply to the EAAN called "Naturalism, Evolution, and True Belief" in Analysis in January 2012.  It is available on his blog here.  In this essay, I would like to examine Law's response in more detail and show why I think it fails to refute the EAAN.

The Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN)

I will begin by summarizing the EAAN (those already familiar with the argument may skip to the next section).  The EAAN attempts to establish an internal inconsistency between belief in naturalism on the one hand, and belief in the reliability of human cognitive (or belief-forming) faculties on the other.  Specifically, the argument suggests that naturalism--which supposes humans are thoroughly material beings who came to be by a purposeless, unguided process of Darwinian evolution--provides no mechanism by which human belief-forming faculties could be calibrated to track "true" propositions.  This is so for the following two reasons.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review of Alvin Plantinga's Where the Conflict Really Lies

Alvin Plantinga, a seasoned philosopher of religion and critic of atheistic and naturalistic belief, develops the following thesis in his 2011 work Where the Conflict Really Lies: "there is superficial conflict but deep concord between science and theistic religion, but superficial concord and deep conflict between science and naturalism."  In essence, Plantinga argues that the enterprise of science functions better given certain theistic assumptions than it does given certain natrualistic assumptions.  Such a claim is a direct assault on the naturalist's stronghold, for the core of naturalist doctrine is powered almost exclusively by the authority of science.  Plantinga, of course, is well-aware how close to the artery his argument cuts:  He colorfully writes, "Naturalists pledge allegiance to science; they nail their banner to the mast of science; they wrap themselves in the mantle of science like a politician in the flag" (p. 307).  Certainly, if naturalists are as wedded to science as Plantinga takes them to be, and if Plantinga's central thesis is remotely successful, then naturalists have something of a crisis on their hands.

Plantinga systematically develops each of the major claims in his thesis throughout the book.  He begins by discussing how the alleged conflict between science and theism is merely superficial, goes on to argue that science and theism are deeply concordant, then claims the concord often attributed to science and naturalism is actually superficial, then finally argues that science and naturalism are in deep conflict.  Although each of these discussions is substantive, interesting, and, in characteristic Plantinga style, entertaining, I will only discuss the argument I found most interesting--the argument that science and naturalism are in deep conflict--and encourage the reader to pick up the book him or herself to learn more about the others.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review of Stephen Meyer's Darwin's Doubt

The neo-Darwinian theory of evolution makes a claim: It claims that the diversity of life forms filling the history of the earth are sufficiently explained by unguided material forces--specifically, random genetic mutations filtered by natural selection.  There are many details to be filled in, but I take it for granted the average reader will agree that the mutation-selection mechanism is close to the core, if not the core itself, of the neo-Darwinian thesis.

Like all claims, the neo-Darwinian claim is potentially true and potentially false.  As such, it is subject to scrutiny.  And, insofar as one wishes to be as circumspect as he can be when choosing which claims he will ultimately embrace, the more critical that scrutiny, the better--for it does not serve to accede a proposition in haste.  It is those circumspect readers for whom Stephen Meyer's Darwin's Doubt was written.  Indeed, it may be just those readers who can even get to the last page of the work without finding the nearest Internet outlet to decry the book's existence who even understand what Meyer is doing and why.  This review is intended for an audience who does not take neo-Darwinism as sacrosanct, nor severe scrutiny of same as blasphemous.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Review of Edward Feser's The Last Superstion: A Refutation of the New Atheism

Edward Feser's 2008 work The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism is a provocative polemic that manages to skillfully do exactly what it sets out to do: refute atheism.  Feser's project is twofold: one, to expose the so-called "New Atheism" (a position represented by writers like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, among others) as a faux intellectual project whose pretensions of rational authority in the marketplace of ideas is bereft of philosophical justification; two, to demonstrate that theistic belief is, and has been for thousands of years, rationally supported by a number of painstakingly detailed arguments that, despite popular belief, have never actually been refuted by atheists--only ignored by them.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Review of Alex Rosenberg's The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions

Alex Rosenberg's 2011 book The Atheist's Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions attempts to boldly "tell it like it is" with respect to a rigorous metaphysical materialist's reality; what it accomplishes, however, is to boldly trip over its own feet.

Rosenberg defends what he calls "scientism": "This is the conviction that the methods of science are the only reliable ways to secure knowledge of anything; that science's description of the world is correct in its fundamentals; and that when 'complete,' what science tells us will not be surprisingly different from what it tells us today" (p.6).

As Rosenberg develops the implications of scientism throughout the book, it becomes evident that he builds into his definition of scientism the metaphysical commitment traditionally dubbed "eliminative materialism."  Eliminative materialism asserts a) that only physical objects and the deterministic laws pushing them around exist, and b) that whatever cannot be entirely reduced to physical objects must not exist (i.e. must be eliminated).   Rosenberg says flatly, "The basic things everything is made up of are fermions and bosons.  That's it....There is no third kind of subatomic particle.  And everything is made up of these two kinds of things....All the processes in the universe, from atomic to bodily to mental, are purely physical processes involving fermions and bosons interacting with one another" (p.21).

It is important to note that Rosenberg's project is not to defend scientism against competing worldviews--readers ought not open the book expecting systematic refutations of theism, deism, dualism, idealism, or any other non-materialist view:
[T]his book is written mainly for those of us who are already deniers [of theism], not just doubters and agnostics.  Although we will address the foibles and fallacies (as well as the wishful thinking) of theists, we won't treat theism as a serious alternative that stills [sic] needs to be refuted.  This book's intended readers have moved past that point.  We know the truth (p. xii).
Rosenberg instead aims to work out the implications of a world exclusively populated by fermions and bosons and only fermions and bosons.  Given that this is his project, it is odd that he used over 300 pages to work this out.  In a world populated by nothing but fermions and bosons, what more need be said other than, "the world is full of only fermions and bosons"?  Oddly, though, Rosenberg attempts to fill twelve chapters with discussion about all the ways we keep entertaining illusions about a world filled with more than fermions and bosons--for example, a world filled with meaning, purposes, desires, intentions, persons, choices, goodness, values, etc.  So, for twelve chapters, Rosenberg introduces these seemingly non-fermion/boson entities into the discussion only to repeat that each one is "just a configuration of fermions and bosons."  He even writes this of his own book, "This book isn't conveying statements.  It's rearranging neural circuits, removing inaccurate disinformation and replacing it with accurate information (p.193)."  Ignore for the moment that the sentence, "This book isn't conveying statements" is itself, of all things, a statement.  What he writes is still perhaps too friendly to non-boson/fermion thinking, as it introduces illusory concepts of "neural circuits," "accuracy," and "information" into the picture; I think it would be more accurate if Rosenberg were to say this instead: "This book isn't conveying statements.  It's a temporary configuration of fermions and bosons.  From moment to moment the fermions and bosons are moving around into different configurations of fermions and bosons."

The fact that Rosenberg attempts to say more than that the world is merely comprised of nothing but fermions and bosons is precisely the reason his project suffers from abject incoherency.  In writing anything, especially a 300 page book, one implicitly accepts a host of normative, meaningful, intentional features of consciousness--e.g. one accepts that a certain "person" exists who has certain thoughts "about" certain non-physical objects of "meaning" that "he" or "she" then translates into certain symbols that combine according to certain non-physical rules to form words that have certain non-physical "meanings" that combine with other words that have certain non-physical "meanings" into non-physical rules of grammar that convey further certain "meanings" to certain "persons" who decode those symbols back into certain non-physical "meanings" that those "persons" can then have thoughts "about."

Notice how many words in the foregoing sentence were neither "fermion" nor "boson."  Seriously, if there exists nothing other than fermions and bosons, how could any symbol ever refer to anything other than fermions and bosons?  What's more, all of the traditional referents of the words in quotes are specially targeted by Rosenberg as entities that do not fit the fermion/boson picture and thus must not exist:
"The physical facts fix all the facts.  It's because they do that thinking about stuff is impossible" (p.162).
"The fact that the mind is the brain guarantees that there is no free will.  It rules out any purposes or designs organizing our actions or our lives" (p.195).
"When it fixed the facts, physics ruled out the existence of selves, souls, persons, or nonphysical minds inhabiting our bodies" (p.220).
Any attempt to coherently put all the pieces of Rosenberg's position together simply smacks of contradiction.  He wants to assert that neither he nor the reader exists and that neither thoughts nor words are ever "about" anything, yet he also wants the nonexistent reader to entertain content-less thoughts derived from words written by a nonexistent author that could not possibly be about anything at all, much less about "scientism" in particular.  Frankly, this is just irritating.

Stepping back from the particulars for a moment, let us recall why one ever proposes or entertains a given theory in the first place.  In general, we are interested in explaining, describing, or understanding the world we happen to live in.  To satisfy these intentions, a theory must both be internally consistent (that is, not self-contradictory) and externally consistent (that is, it must faithfully "map-onto" or "match" events in the external world).  Presumably, there is only one way for a theory to be externally consistent (since we live in a single universe), but there are potentially infinite ways for a theory to be internally consistent (since there are an infinite number of possible worlds).  Thus, our ultimate aim when assessing theories is to find one that satisfies both internal and external tests of consistency.  The internal test may be dubbed the "rational test," whereas the external test may be dubbed the "empirical test."

At the risk of oversimplifying too much, let me suggest that the field of mathematics is a paradigm example of rational analysis, whereas the field of science is a paradigm example of empirical analysis.  The axioms, postulates, and theorems of mathematics beautifully embody internal consistency, but they don't, by themselves, tell us anything necessarily true about the external world.  For example, if geometrically perfect cubes existed in the world, then mathematical formulas would describe the features of that cube without error.  But, of course, that conditional does nothing to show that there ever did, or ever will, exist a geometrically perfect cube in this universe.  In order to know whether a geometrically perfect cube has ever, or will ever, exist in this world, one needs to step into the realm of empirical analysis--i.e., one needs to look at our world and see what's in it.  A great example of this is the story of Neptune's discovery.  Astronomers had used Newton's laws of gravitation to compute Uranus's orbital path on the assumption that no further celestial body existed beyond Uranus's orbit.  Observations of Uranus's orbit over time, however, revealed deviations from the path outlined by Newton's equations.  Thus, there was a conflict between theory (only seven planets) and observation (deviations from predicted orbit).  In these situations, one can either revise the theory or deny the observations.  Orthodoxy generally dictates that one do the former, and that indeed is what happened with Uranus--the observations were ultimately reconciled with the existence of an eighth planet pulling Uranus off its predicted path.

Now let's return to Rosenberg and his scientism thesis.  He claims to strictly be following the methods and findings of empirical science--indeed, he derives scientism from the word science itself.  The last thing Rosenberg should want to do, then, is allow detached theorizing to dictate what one actually finds in the world.  In other words, Rosenberg should never let what exists in the world be contingent on, derivative from, or beholden to what this or that theory says.  The direction should always be in the reverse: the theory should be contingent on, derivative from, or beholden to what is observed to exist in the empirical world.  Rosenberg quite explicitly maintains that scientism predicts the non-existence of intentional states (i.e. aboutness), subjective points of view, and enduring selves.  Furthermore, Rosenberg's scientism predicts that all anyone should ever find when looking at the world is fermions and bosons (afterall, that's all that supposedly exists).  The natural next step for one committed to the empirical nature of science would be, of course, to look at the world to see whether this theory checks out.  Depending on what one finds, the theory is either affirmed or denied.

So, when Rosenberg looks, what does he see?  He says, "Without scientism, we look at life from the inside, from the first-person POV [point of view].  The first person is the subject, the audience, the viewer of subjective experience, the self in the mind" (p.194).  This seems to suggest that when Rosenberg looks, he finds, just as his readers reliably find, a first person point of view, a subject, a self--that is, he finds what his theory says he shouldn't find (selves, etc.), and he doesn't find what his theory says he should find (only fermions and bosons).  Despite these observations, Rosenberg asserts, "Scientism shows that the first-person POV is an illusion" (p.194). Now, on first blush, this appears to be an instance of retroactively modifying an observation in order to fit a given theory.  This would be analogous to claiming Uranus's observed irregularities were merely "illusory" in order to preserve the seven-planet solar system model.  Such reasoning is the reverse of empirical honesty.  If Rosenberg's scientism were the correct model of our world, there should not even be "illusions" of first-person points of view, much less real points of view.  Again, all there should be are fermions and bosons--no selves, no meaning, no points of view, and certainly no illusions.  There shouldn't be any "experiences" of any kind.  But, remarkably, Rosenberg goes on to say this:
Since scientism admits that experiences exist, they will have to be physical for scientism to be true.  If the facts about experience can't be fixed by physics, scientism will be false.  More specifically, if the facts about my experiences can't be fixed, explained, accounted for by neuroscience, then scientism will be false (p.227).
Now, why in a world of just fermions and bosons would there be "experiences"?  Does physics tell us that fermions or bosons have "experience" properties in addition to mass, spin, or whatever?  Furthermore, why in a world barring first-person points of view would experiences nevertheless be permitted?  How is it even coherent to speak of "experiences" without points of view "having" the experiences?  To Rosenberg's credit, he does appear to recognize, to some extent, the gravity of this problem.  He admits that these "experiences" need to somehow be absorbed into the fermion/boson world if scientism is going to live.  In chapter ten, he (sort of) attempts to answer objections to the-mind-is-the-brain conjectures in the philosophy of mind.  He brings up three famous arguments (one each from Rene Descartes, Thomas Nagel, and Godfried Von Leibniz), each of which illustrating conceptual problems inherent in turning the mind into a physical thing.  I'll simply sketch Descartes' argument here as that will suffice.

Descartes simply argued that he can doubt everything about the world except his own conscious awareness.  He can be wrong about the fact that there's an independently existing world "out there"; he can be wrong that he has a physical body interacting with such a world; he can even be wrong about logical truths like addition.  What he cannot be wrong about, though, is that he is a perceiving thing.  Even if every perception he ever has deceives him in some way, it still must be true that he is a perceiving thing.  Rosenberg's persistent appeal to "illusions" in his book very clearly meets Descartes' argument head-on.  The appeal to illusions requires that there be a perceiving thing of whom the illusion deceives.  Here's Rosenberg's response:
Does Scientism actually have to take Descartes's argument and others like it seriously?  Does it actually have to diagnose each of their mistakes, or any of them?  No.  Even before you hear them, science provides a compelling reason that they must all be wrong.  One has only to weigh the evidence for scientism--500 years of scientific progress--and the evidence against it--including those cute conundrums.  It's clear which side has the weightier evidence.
Scientism isn't required to figure out what is wrong with these proofs that experience can't be physical, so minds can't be brains.  That's the job of science--neuroscience in particular.  Scientism can ignore the conundrums, dilemmas, and paradoxes that the arguments generate.  Science cannot.  These problems are signposts in the research program of the science of the brain.  Unraveling them will be some of its marks of progress.  Meanwhile scientism can already be confident that they will be unraveled (p.227-8).
To call this response underwhelming would be an understatement.  This move does not bear the marks of one following empirical observations.  This is theory telling us what exists rather than what exists telling us what theory to hold.  His strategy is to downplay Descartes et. al.'s arguments as "cute," tell his readers to ignore them, and redirect attention to the 500 years of scientific progress in fields unrelated to the mind.  It is worth mentioning that Descartes (who lived from 1596 to 1650) is himself credited as one of the founders of modern science.  By appealing to the "500 years of scientific progress" while simultaneously mentioning Descartes, Rosenberg inadvertently draws attention to the fact that science has failed to resolve Descartes' mind-body problem for basically all 500 of those years.  How much "weight" does this add to scientism's evidence base?  Furthermore, it is entirely circular to appeal to the future findings of science to demonstrate the physical nature of experiences; the point of Descartes et. al.'s arguments is to show that experiences are not physical.  To assert that future science will show experiences to be physical is simply to assume that experiences are physical.  If one assumes what needs to be proved, then one is just arguing in a circle.  I suppose scientism's devotees can follow Rosenberg's suggestion and just ignore these problems, fortunately the rest of us can just as easily ignore scientism.

Allow me to close by repeating something I said earlier.  Rosenberg's project took a turn for the worse the moment he tried to say something above and beyond "the world is filled with only fermions and bosons."  If this claim were really true, there would simply be nothing more to say.  There would be no book to write, no audience to educate, no scientism to define.  There would just be the damn fermions and bosons and nothing else.  Such a world would be internally consistent.  The fact that Rosenberg did not stop with that one statement undermines his entire project.  Word after word, he just digs scientism a deeper and deeper grave by reminding the reader that there are all kinds of words that are "about" concepts other than fermions and bosons.  He cannot say anything without presupposing the very entities and concepts he wants to say do not exist.  In doing so, all 300 pages of his book decisively show that his scientism is not externally consistent--it may describe a world, but it does not describe our world.  Insofar as readers are interested in understanding this world, the best this book will do is provide some insight into what some people in this world are prepared to believe.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Critique of H. Allen Orr's Review of Mind and Cosmos

Continuing my focus on reviews of Thomas Nagel's recent book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, I will assess some comments by University of Rochester professor H. Allen Orr.

Professor Orr's review of Mind and Cosmos appeared in The New York Review of Books.  I found Orr's review to be critical but respectful of Nagel's work.  This is commendable because Orr appears to have rather firm confidence in the correctness of neo-Darwinism.  Orr received his training in biology at the University of Chicago under Jerry Coyne.  Coyne's treatment of Darwinian dissenters is generally less tempered and even hostile compared to Orr's review of Nagel.  (Consider that Coyne's blog is entitled "Why Evolution is True" and a recent post about Mind and Cosmos is titled "Tom Nagel's antievolution book gets thrice pummeled.")  In any case, let's look at some of Orr's criticisms of Nagel.

Orr primarily centers his review on Nagel's critique of neo-Darwinism, which makes sense given that Orr is a biologist.  Orr has this to say:
[Nagel’s] emphasizing purported “empirical reasons” for finding neo-Darwinism “almost certainly false” and he’s suggesting the existence of new scientific laws. These represent moves, however halting, into science proper. But science, finally, isn’t about defining the space of all formally possible explanations of nature. It’s about inference to the most likely hypothesis. And on these grounds there’s simply no comparison between neo-Darwinism (for which there is overwhelming evidence) and natural teleology (for which there is none).

I want to draw attention to the claim that neo-Darwinism is supported by "overwhelming evidence."  John Dupré used the same phrase to extol the merits of neo-Darwinism in his review of Mind and Cosmos (which I evaluated in my previous post).  I put myself in a similar category to the one Nagel places himself: "[A] layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist"(Mind and Cosmos, p.5), but of course my expertise is by far inferior to that of Nagel's.  Nevertheless, I do believe I comprehend some of the empirical reasons upon which one such as Nagel may base doubts about evolution.  The fact that individuals like Nagel and I harbor doubts about the neo-Darwinian story are precisely because we do not find the evidence in its favor "overwhelming."  This is not to say that neo-Darwinism is bereft of empirical support.  Even prominent intelligent design advocates like Michael Behe fully concede the Darwinian mechanism has demonstrated its capacity to do some explanatory work (see his Edge of Evolution).  Since the ambitions of neo-Darwinism are so lofty (it is attempting to explain the creation of all life forms on planet Earth, afterall), the proposition that our available data is sufficient to be "overwhelmingly" in support of Darwinism is conspicuously stripped of modesty.  That being said, Orr's assertion that there is "overwhelming evidence" for neo-Darwinism may win some over (if they weren't already Darwinians) purely on his authority alone; but, for us "laymen who read widely in the literature," this claim reads more like a bumper sticker slogan than a piercing objection to skepticism over evolution.

Early in his article, Orr takes issue with Nagel's candid reference to his intuitions and common sense when evaluating the believability of the Darwinian story.  Orr says this:
Nagel’s conclusion rests largely on the strength of his intuition....But plenty of scientific truths are counterintuitive(does anyone find it intuitive that we’re hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour?) and a scientific education is, to a considerable extent, an exercise in taming the authority of one’s intuition. Nagel never explains why his intuition should count for so much here.
 Let me take the last claim first.  Nagel devotes an entire chapter of Mind and Cosmos to cognition, whereby he records the remarkable nature of reason to the effect that it can make direct contact with universal truths: "The distinctive thing about reason is that it connects us with the truth directly" (p.82). If nothing else, I would say that Nagel's chapter on cognition does go some distance toward explaining why intuition might count for something.  To make this connection, of course, I am interpreting Nagel's intuition to be rational in nature--conceptual truths that are grasped immediately without mediation by sense perceptions.  A salient example of rational intuition is the principle of non-contradiction--something cannot be both true and false simultaneously.

Even if we deny that Nagel's treatment of cognition explains why intuition should count for much, rational intuition by itself is by no means a poor epistemological tool.  What Nagel likely means by intuition is simply his rational faculties acting on the sum total of his knowledge and experiences about the world.  An application of this kind of intuition is properly said to utilize empirical data--much of it qualitative, but some quantitative where possible.  The fact that the earth hurtles itself around the sun does not sit uncomfortably with the data one otherwise has about the world (changing of the seasons, alternations between day and night, pictures from space).  One might say that despite a lack of expertise in the field of astronomy by the layperson, the majority of individuals do not find the motions of planets counterintuitive.  This is evident by the fact that so many people today accept the motions of the earth.  By contrast, a similar lack of expertise in the field of biology does not amount to a widespread embrace of Darwinian evolution--this despite its preeminence in high school biology courses.  I would go so far as to say Orr's example of the earth actually reinforces Nagel's case: The fact that evolution has not reached the kind of widespread acceptance by the layman that the earth's motion has means that evolution--given its supporting evidence--is not as intuitive as the motions of the earth.  This kind of intuitive test certainly detracts from the claim that evidence for evolution is "overwhelming."

Perhaps a better analogy for Orr would have been Einstein's theories of relativity or the bizarre findings of quantum mechanics.  At least these examples are so counterintuitive that most of us don't even know how to talk about them.  But, I suspect even these would undermine Orr's position.  Neo-Darwinism is not supposed to be counterintuitive the way general relativity or quantum mechanics is.  Unless I'm mistaken, relativity theory and quantum theory are largely based in complex mathematical equations.  Neo-Darwinism, by contrast, is largely conceptual in nature--dog breeding without the dog breeder; slow, successive slight modifications over large periods of time; those sorts of things.

Conceptually, neo-Darwinism is not counterintuitive in the sense that people have a hard time understanding it.  Instead, neo-Darwinism is counterintuitive in that it conflicts with what we otherwise understand about the world.  Specifically, we habitually associate highly ordered, functionally-specified systems with intentional causation--something pure laws of physics do not possess.  Our observations of biological creatures reveal organisms of strikingly sophisticated order and functionality.  Our observations of chance and law-like processes reveal little by way of organization and specification powers.  What is intuitive, then, given our sum total of reason and experience is that chance and natural law are poor candidates for building the biological creatures we see.  This kind of intuition is similar to what Alvin Plantinga calls properly basic beliefs--beliefs that we are justified in holding unless we find strong defeaters for those beliefs.  Alvin Plantinga flushes the idea out with respect to design in his recent book Where the Conflict Really Lies:
In many cases, so the thought goes, the belief that something or other is a product of design is not formed by way of inference, but in the basic way; what goes on here is to be understood as more like perception than like inference" (p.245, original italics).
Plantinga makes the case that, in ordinary life, many of the beliefs we form do not come at the end of some formal reasoning process; instead, in a way consistent with Nagel's claim mentioned above, our rational minds simply make direct contact with apparent truths.  This is most obvious with claims about the external world or the reality of the past--philosophers have long failed to formally justify our beliefs in these things, but nevertheless few of us feel foolish for believing that the exterior world of trees, clouds, and philosophy books is real, as well as the belief that the world didn't just pop into existence right now with the appearance of age.  This kind of intuition is certainly plausibly reliable--Orr himself must concede both the realities of the external world and the past in order to embrace neo-Darwinism itself.  For those of us who, despite a reasonable familiarity with its evidential foundation, find neo-Darwinism doubtful, our intuitions about the matter are not automatically defective. 

Design is, as Plantinga argues, something we can perceive directly rather than inferentially.  This thought is generally accepted when the field of inquiry is something non-biological--like archeological artifacts, abnormally large streaks of "luck" in a casino, or the discovery of geometrically precise objects in the middle of the woods.  Richard Dawkins even wrote in The Blind Watchmaker that "Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose" (p.1).  The immediate detection of design in biological systems is, therefore, even present in those most fiercely opposed to design.  The relevant question is whether something exceptional undercuts our naïve perception of design in biological systems. Nagel writes: 
We are expected to abandon this naïve response, not in favor of a fully worked out physical/chemical explanation but in favor of an alternative that is really a schema for explanation, supported by some examples (p. 6).
Here, again for a layman reading widely in the popular literature, Nagel seems to be right.  Take the case of the whale.  We're told that the fully aquatic whale descends from a completely land-dwelling, wolf-like creature called Pakicetus.  Presumably, the transition from Pakicetus to the fully aquatic creature Dorudon transpired in about nine million years.  A Google image search for "evolution of whale" will reveal plenty of diagrams of this transition, most of them nicely illustrating intermediate creatures between Pakicetus and Dorudon.  Neo-Darwinism asserts that this transition took place largely, if not fully, by the mechanisms of random mutations and natural selection, and I grant that there exists fossil evidence for each of the creatures depicted in the transition.  This amounts to "a schema for explanation, supported by some examples."  What's missing from this story, though, are fairly precise estimates pertaining to a) the number of unique anatomical changes required to engineer a Dorudon from a Pakicetus, b) the rates at which the neo-Darwinian mechanism can produce novel mutations and fix them in a population, and c) an account of how each significant engineering change simultaneously enhanced the fitness of the creature while drastically changing the creature from land-dwelling to water-dwelling.  For a particularly powerful presentation of this problem, listen to Richard Sternberg discuss the whale transition in this debate.  Sternberg's presentation begins around the 30 minute mark. The proposition that a blind process of random mutations and survival-based selection can fully explain this engineering marvel--by a mere schema for explanation supported by some examples--is by no means "overwhelming evidence."  The intuition of incredulity is not only appropriate in this case, it may be the literal measure of intellectual responsibility.
Overall, Mr. Orr's review of Mind and Cosmos was adequate and thought provoking.  My main response to the review was that Orr overestimates the power of neo-Darwinism by downplaying the role of common sense and declining to admit that there are serious quantitative gaps in the theory's explanatory apparatus.  Laypersons who are apprised of the popular literature are all-to-aware of the forceful objections to neo-Darwinism that are as-yet unresolved.  The fact that someone of Nagel's stature recognizes the shortcomings of neo-Darwinism ought to give individuals like Orr and Dupré pause when asserting the existence of "overwhelming evidence" for neo-Darwinism.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Critique of John Dupré's Review of Mind and Cosmos

My interest in Thomas Nagel's recent work Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False has led me to read a number of reviews of Nagel's book.  As one might expect from a controversial work from a leading contemporary philosopher, opinions of the book are all over the place.  Perhaps the most agreed-upon feature of the book by all reviewers is skepticism over Nagel's proposed teleological solution--the possibility that nature is in some sense "biased toward the marvelous," which increases the likelihood that our world would contain biologically sophisticated conscious creatures capable of directing thought, reasoning in accord with logical principles, and recognizing objective values in the world.  I, too, share this skepticism.  The bulk of the controversy, though, is evident from the subtitle.  Nagel primarily aims to undermine the preeminence of materialist neo-Darwinism, and this move automatically stirs a hornet's nest of evolutionists into action.

Here I wish to offer a critique of a review on record at Notre Dame's Philosophical Reviews by John Dupré.  I found this review to be almost entirely derisive of Nagel's work.  Dupré writes early on, "I found this book frustrating and unconvincing," and goes on to say that Nagel fails to argue against the Darwinian account, which, from Dupré's standpoint, is supported by "overwhelming evidence."  As one can see from my previous review of Mind and Cosmos, I found Nagel's work to do a commendable job of rebutting neo-Darwinism.  Thus, I must disagree with Dupré.

Dupré attempts to take Nagel to task for embracing a kind of rationalism.  Dupré contrasts rationalism with atheism, but traditionally rationalism is contrasted with empiricism: Rationalism holds that some understanding is derived independent of experience whereas empiricism holds that all understanding is derived from experience.  Thus, I do not know exactly how Dupré intends the term rationalism to be understood, but in the context he quotes the following from Mind and Cosmos: "everything about the world can . . . be understood (p. 17)".  This quote from Nagel, though, is actually a definition of the principle of sufficient reason.  Here's the full quote from Mind and Cosmos:
This assumption is a form of the principle of sufficient reason--that everything about the world can at some level be understood, and that if many things, even the most universal, initially seem arbitrary, that is because there are further things we do not know, which explain why they are not arbitrary after all (17).
Dupré does not address the principle of sufficient reason directly, so I cannot say whether he rejects it or not.  As far as Nagel's project is concerned, there is nothing irresponsible about announcing his embrace of the principle of sufficient reason and assessing the explanatory powers of the natural sciences in light of the principle.  Certainly, one can take issue with the principle of sufficient reason itself (such a strategy was recently employed by Alex Rosenberg in debate with William Lane Craig), but Nagel's use of the principle in his book is not automatically defective.  Indeed, the natural sciences themselves seem to be largely motivated by the essence of the principle--what is a scientific "success" other than the comprehensive explanation of a natural phenomenon?

Dupré goes on to make a very odd claim: "It would not be an exaggeration to say that for Nagel, if science can't come up with a theory of everything it has, in some deep sense, failed. Nagel is thus, in effect, committed a priori to reductionism; the failure of reductionism is therefore the failure of science."  What strikes me as odd about these two sentences is the questionable use of the term "science."  Nagel is not targeting "science" in his work; rather, he's targeting what he alternately calls "materialism" and "psychophysical reductionism."  These are metaphysical positions.  Science, by contrast, is a brand of empirical epistemology--i.e., it is a method.  Insofar as something is said to "fail" in Nagel's book, it is the metaphysical propositions of materialism or psychophysical reductionism.  Nagel does not deny that the natural sciences have a great deal of authority with respect to the contents of the natural world; instead, he calls into question whether this authority exhausts all that can be said about the natural world:
But in spite of the great accomplishments of the natural sciences in their present form, it is important both for science itself and for philosophy to ask how much of what there is the physical sciences can render intelligible--how much of the world's intelligibility consists in its subsumability under universal, mathematically formulable laws governing the spatiotemporal order.  If there are limits to the reach of science in this form, are there other forms of understanding that can render intelligible what physical science does not explain? (18).
In an effort to argue that the answer to the previous question is yes, Nagel offers three related areas that the methods of science, and therefore the metaphysics of materialism, cannot explain: consciousness, cognition, and value.  With respect to consciousness, Nagel offers familiar philosophical arguments suggesting that irreducibly subjective first-person properties like qualia are irreconcilable with purely materialist metaphysics.  Dupré offers the following assessment of Nagel's argument from consciousness: "What seems to me beyond any serious question is that the results and insights gained by the vast quantities of philosophical and quasi-philosophical work on consciousness in the last few decades is hardly comparable with the successes that stand to the credit of evolution."

First of all, it is entirely unclear why this comparison is relevant to the potency of Nagel's argument.  Would it be any criticism of evolution to point out that its insights pale in comparison to the successes of particle physics?  How exactly does one even compare the insights of philosophy of consciousness with evolutionary successes?  Remember, Nagel's argument from consciousness is not directly opposed to evolution; it is instead directly opposed to materialism.  Evolution is only challenged by the implications of a falsified materialist metaphysics.

Second, what exactly are these evolutionary successes?  Dupré criticizes Nagel for failing to offer arguments against neo-Darwinism (Nagel does, however, provide citations), yet Dupré fails to provide support for these evolutionary successes.  In the realm of "junk" DNA, current research appears to disconfirm the predictions of evolution.  For example, consider this article's opening line: "Research findings from the University of North Carolina School of Medicine are shining a light on an important regulatory role performed by the so-called dark matter, or 'junk DNA,' within each of our genes."  Surely, such findings do not count as evolutionary "successes."  Furthermore, even though it is ridiculed to do so, I strongly recommend consulting the recent works of the research fellows at the Discovery Institute for cogent empirical challenges to the "successful" status of Darwinian evolution.  Ultimately, I think Durpé is relying on the buoyant powers of the consensus view to carry his claim.  Since Nagel is challenging this consensus, it is ineffective to merely reassert the consensus view--this view must be defended in light of contemporary objections.

Dupré's use of evolution as a measure of success continues with respect to his criticism of Nagel's argument from cognition:
Nagel thinks that reason gives us insights into reality that evolution cannot account for....My own views are, first, that the mediating mental effect in perception is a highly problematic entity, and second that surely logic is at least mediated by language. But here I will only repeat that we have surely not been offered anything harder to deny than the general truth of evolution."
Leaving aside whether the "general truth of evolution" is as strong as Dupré leads us to believe, let's consider the relationship between reason itself and "the general truth of evolution."  Suppose we concede "the general truth of evolution"; what does this imply?  It implies that our conscious minds have reached far enough outside of themselves to apprehend a genuine piece of objective reality--something the sense perceptions themselves could not possibly reach alone.  It is not a "snapshot" of our immediate environment, nor a behavioral impulse.  It is a universal proposition about reality itself: "In ordinary perception, we are like mechanisms governed by a (roughly) truth-preserving algorithm.  But when we reason, we are like a mechanism that can see that the algorithm it follows is truth-preserving" (Mind and Cosmos, 83).  Objective reasoning is not simply the summation of a number of sense perceptions accumulated over years of evolution--it is instead an ability over and above evolution that makes claims like "the general truth of evolution" comprehensible and, ultimately, evaluable.  Therefore, not only is it harder to deny the insights of reason than the general truth of evolution, it is impossible to deny the insights of reason while still holding there is such a thing as "the general truth of evolution."

Finally, Dupré slips into his review a comment about the effect Nagel's book is likely to have on those friendly to intelligent design: "The title of the book...all too readily interpreted as announcing the falsity of Darwinism, will certainly lend comfort (and sell a lot of copies) to the religious enemies of Darwinism."  My only response is this: So what?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review of Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos is first and foremost a work of philosophy, not a work of pure science.  Many critical reviews of his book are unfortunately miscast in this respect.  What is true is that Nagel uses scientifically-derived evidence to support his philosophical arguments—exactly what any competent philosopher ought to do.

Despite the surprisingly short span of pages in the book, the arguments are hard to digest because they demand a fairly sizable familiarity with contemporary arguments in philosophy of mind and philosophy of evolutionary biology.  I expect this will make the book a delight to read for those with such familiarity but challenging for those without.  While the footnotes and references in the book are relatively sparse, the works cited are well-chosen and successfully do the heavy-lifting where necessary.  For example, Nagel refers the reader to Michael Behe, Steven Meyer, and David Berlinski—all formidable thinkers affiliated with the Discovery Institute—when he draws attention to empirical challenges to neo-Darwinism.  Nagel does not attempt to summarize these respective challenges but rather expects the reader to follow the citations on his or her own.  This decision renders the book more fluid for those of us familiar with these works, but may leave the less-familiar reader perplexed by Nagel’s empirical doubts about neo-Darwinism. 

Nagel’s efforts to embrace the quality of arguments offered by those friendly (or at least not hostile) to intelligent design, while simultaneously rejecting the inference to design himself, is refreshingly commendable.  Here, Nagel embodies the sage advice of the late Robert Nozick who wrote the following in Anarchy, State, and Utopia:
I like to think intellectual honesty demands that, occasionally at least, we go out of our way to confront strong arguments opposed to our views.  How else are we to protect ourselves from continuing in error?  It seems only fair to remind the reader that intellectual honesty has its dangers; arguments read perhaps at first in curious fascination may come to convince and even to seem natural and intuitive.  Only the refusal to listen guarantees one against being ensnared by the truth (x-xi).
Meyer’s lengthy volume Signature in the Cell (which Nagel received scorn for recommending in 2009) squeezes on the conspicuous problem of reconciling the sophisticated self-reproducing cell with inert material antecedents governed solely by chance and natural law.  Nagel rightly recognizes that Meyer’s treatment of the problem is provocative grounds for harboring doubts about the purely materialst account of the cell’s origin.  Nagel, though, leaves it up to the reader to consult Signature for the substance of Meyer’s argument.  Here’s a representative sample of Meyer’s account in Signature:
If we assume that a minimally complex cell needs at least 250 proteins of, on average, 150 amino acids and that the probability of producing just one such protein is 1 in 10164 as calculated above, then the probability of producing all the necessary proteins needed to service a minimally complex cell is 1 in 10164 multiplied by itself 250 times, or 1 in 1041,000.  This kind of number allows a great amount of quibbling about the accuracy of various estimates without altering the conclusion.  The probability of producing the proteins necessary to build a minimally complex cell--or the genetic information necessary to produce those proteins--by chance is unimaginably small (213).
In his previous works The View from Nowhere and The Last Word, Nagel firmly established himself as a serious philosophical realist.  Nagel labored extensively in The View from Nowhere to include the reality of subjective states in our ontology:
I have argued that the seductive appeal of objective reality depends on a mistake.  It is not the given.  Reality is not just objective reality.  Sometimes, in the philosophy of mind but also elsewhere, the truth is not to be found by travelling as far away from one's personal perspective as possible (27).
Nagel fortified his philosophical realism in The Last Word by attacking popular forms of skepticism—subjectivism and relativism:
Many forms of relativism and subjectivism collapse into either self-contradiction or vacuity--self-contradiction because they end up claiming that nothing is the case, or vacuity because they boil down to the assertion that anything we say or believe is something we say or believe (6).
In Mind and Cosmos, he continues this tradition with particular emphasis on consciousness and mental properties, like reason and value.  His treatment of this task bears the marks of a man honestly attempting to reconcile what is plainly evident about this world with systematic findings of science and mathematics.  Nagel insists that there must be a fit between theory and lived life—if ever the two are in conflict, it is theory that must revise itself, not the realities of lived life.  Here, he is diametrically opposed to views such as those espoused by Susan Blackmore in Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction.  Blackmore writes:
We can hang on to the way [the self] feels and assume that a persisting self or soul or spirit exists…or we can reject any persisting entity that corresponds to our feeling of being a self.  I think that intellectually we have to take this last path.  The trouble is that it is very hard to accept in one’s personal life….It means accepting that every time I seem to exist, this is just a temporary fiction...This is tough, but I think it gets easier with practice (81).
Nagel, as I suspect most conscious beings do, steadfastly refuses to allow theory to dictate the absurd proposition that he needs to “practice” denying his own selfhood.  For Nagel, the mind is neither reducible to the brain nor an epiphenomon of the brain merely because materialistic theory requires it; rather, the mind (including its ineliminative subjective nature) is a bona fide ingredient of the natural world, and whatever theory of reality aims to correctly explain this fact must accept mind as it actually is:
Materialist naturalism leads to reductionist ambitions because it seems unacceptable to deny the reality of all those familiar things that are not at first glance physical.  But if no plausible reduction is available, and if denying reality to the mental continues to be unacceptable, that suggests that the original premise, materialist naturalism, is false, and not just around the edges (Mind and Cosmos, 15).
Such a stance is radical only in the sense that it resists the predominant commitments of the age-- not radical in the sense that it runs afoul of philosophical coherence.  What is remarkable about Nagel’s project is that he keeps his sights steadily aimed at the very reality we are attempting to explain.  Not only are we interested in the very fabric of this thing we call consciousness, but we also want to know how in the world it is able to direct its awareness onto a myriad of subjects (intentionality); process raw data into holistic, abstract, and non-immediate generalizations about the world (cognition); and contort thoughts and behaviors into alignment with stance-independent maxims of right and wrong, good and bad (values).  Rather than deny the existence of these features or appeal to some future, unknown material process that designates these features as physical “residues” of one sort or another, he takes them as fundamental elements of nature.  As such, he resolutely maintains that these features must be explained, not explained away.

A particularly formidable challenge to neo-Darwinism Nagel mentioned in The Last Word and repeated in Mind and Cosmos shares the philosophical stage with Alvin Plantinga, who crystallized the argument in his 2011 work Where the Conflict Really Lies.  The argument suggests that, on a Darwinian evolutionary account of mind, only cognitive functions (e.g. beliefs) that improve survival fitness  will be “seen” by natural selection; the content of the beliefs—e.g. whether or not the beliefs are true—are of no material consequence to the selection mechanism.  If Smith believes, for example, that Mercury is larger in diameter than Jupiter, but all of his other immediate perceptual faculties are operating properly such that he eats when he’s hungry, finds warmth when he’s cold, and runs when he sees danger, natural selection cannot select against his (apparently) mistaken belief about celestial bodies.  For all we know given neo-Darwinism, that belief simply came “along for the ride” when natural selection fixed a particular brain state in Smith for other reasons.  The conclusion from this argument is that our cognitive faculties, given neo-Darwinism, do not reliably produce true beliefs with respect to non-perceptual, non-immediate beliefs.  Thus, whatever non-perceptual, non-immediate beliefs these cognitive faculties generate are not reliably true.  Neo-Darwinism is one such non-perceptual, non-immediate belief generated by these cognitive faculties.  Thus, belief in neo-Darwinism is unreliable.  Hence, neo-Darwinism is self-defeating: Neo-Darwinism undermines the very cognitive faculties that generate belief in neo-Darwinism.  Nagel writes in Mind and Cosmos:
I agree with Alvin Plantinga that, unlike divine benevolence, the application of evolutionary theory to the understanding of our own cognitive capacities should undermine, though it need not completely destroy, our confidence in them.  Mechanisms of belief formation that have selective advantage in the everyday struggle for existence do not warrant our confidence in the construction of theoretical accounts of the world as a whole (28).
Nagel’s critique of the adequacy of the materialist, neo-Darwininian account of consciousness, cognition, and value is sharp and biting; however, his proposed alternative has received nearly universal criticism from reviewers.  Nagel records his personal aversion to theistic alternatives without much by way of sustained argument.  This approach is understandably disappointing to reviewers like Alvin Plantinga and William Dembski who have labored patiently to make their respective cases for theism in the face of unbridled academic hostility, but Nagel’s proposed alternative—teleological naturalism—is offered by Nagel with a great deal of circumspection:
Teleology  means that in addition to physical law of the familiar kind, there are other laws of nature that are 'biased toward the marvelous’….I am not confident that this Aristotelian idea of teleology without intention makes sense, but I do not at the moment see why it doesn't (Mind and Cosmos, 92-3).
As one who has nothing invested in any particular outcome, I welcome Nagel’s bold consideration of this teleological alternative.  Like him, I am not confident that it makes sense, but it is a welcome deviation from the traditional dichotomy of materialism and theism.  As a matter of personal taste, I would prefer Nagel to take up the task of systematically addressing the theistic alternative though.  His writings have thus far suggested to me that he is driven to atheism by conviction rather than argument.  To wit, Nagel in The Last Word: “It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief.  It's that I hope there is no God!  I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that" (130).  Such locutions strongly lead me to suspect Nagel’s teleological alternative is a reluctant solution rather than an invigorated one.
In any case, Mind and Cosmos is a great contribution to an immensely interesting and lively philosophical debate.  I recommend studying the work carefully and following up on his works cited.